The sentiment that we are in a troubled, uncertain, and unusual period reverberates throughout media think pieces, anodyne corporate advertisements, and boilerplate email exchanges. Given the radical social reorganization underway due to the pandemic and civil unrest, concerns about environmental degradation and climate change have seemingly receded. Robin Globus Veldman in The Gospel of Climate Skepticism analyzes and then nuances this sentiment as the root cause of white traditionalist evangelical Christians’ well-documented disregard of the apocalyptic predictions of climate science. They have their own apocalypse coming, so why care about SUVs? While some of the evangelicals Veldman interviewed in Georgia subscribe to this view, she pinpoints another, more powerful sentiment driving their skepticism, namely their embattlement with secular culture, or “the world.” This framing raises the question of whether nature belongs to the world from which evangelicals seek to detach themselves.
Traditionalist evangelicals value nature as part of God’s creation yet remain skeptical of climate change. This is a tension that seems to frustrate Veldman: Why don’t they care? she asks implicitly. They tell her it is God’s world, that damage done to the earth is an offense against God, and that nature is part of God’s cosmic revelation. Nature carries significance, therefore, but ultimately not as great as moral norms surrounding marriage, sexuality, reproductive rights, and so on. For those evangelicals who do engage with environmental concern, they mobilize phrases such as “creation care” and “stewardship” to navigate a politically and theologically fraught terrain. Such positioning allows them to create critical distance between the way they care about the environment and socially unacceptable “environmentalism” or “the Left.”
Yet, what does it mean to care, to steward? Evangelicals in Georgia view a localized, instrumental sense of caring about nature, what Veldman calls “practical environmentalism,” as appropriate. Care is a given in this order of things, like tidying one’s room. Nature holds use for them or their children, therefore they deem it worthy of care and protection. However, they see themselves as responsible primarily for individual actions, such as picking up litter, while God maintains the cosmic order. Suggesting otherwise is a sin. In a cosmological schema dominated by an omniscient creator and anthropocentrism, a conceptual deficit remains that renders traditionalist evangelicals unable to incorporate the secular apocalypse modelled by climate science.
Perhaps this misalignment between white traditionalist evangelicalism and climate science arises from the contested conceptual terrain from which the term “nature” arises. As environmental historian William Cronon tells us in Uncommon Ground, “Nature” is a problem. Cronon discerns eight distinct meanings for the concept of “nature”: as naïve reality, as moral imperative, as Eden, as virtual reality, as artifice or self-conscious cultural construction, as commodity, as demonic other or avenging angel, as contested terrain. Each has its own cultural histories, associations, and implications. Strong assumptions of the virtue of nature billow throughout the first three meanings. That nature provides, nourishes, restores, and must be taken care of by humans. That “natural” is in some hazy sense synonymous with “beneficial to humans.” Yet, there remains in nature as demonic other the countervailing association of nature with wildness, with unculturedness, or that which lacks culture, and therefore requires human care.
This wild nature is perhaps closer to normative nature for traditionalist evangelicals. Nature, like a well-ordered home, must be managed. Yet, in this analogy offered up by Veldman’s interlocutors, it is the domestic sphere that concerns evangelicals the most. The value of nature blooms from its utility to them, for hunting, for fishing, for domesticating problematic wildness and creating order that primarily benefits humans. Their sense of order derives from the human as the chosen image of God. This centrality of the human in their cosmic order means that their concern resides with bodies, above all, not deforestation or fossil fuel extraction or ocean acidification. Traditionalist evangelicals concern themselves with the proper order of human bodies: How are these bodies behaving? How are they reproducing? The normative ordering of bodies corresponds on a personal, corporeal level to the ordering of nature as domestication. Their duty in this schema is to maintain that domesticated, ordered nature for human benefit. The perturbed balance of gases in the atmosphere has no place in their conceptualization of nature.
The political is not only personal, however. Veldman compels us to cast off our naïve apolitical notions of nature and confront how religion and politics infuse ideologies of the natural world and its proper management. Climate skepticism is a form of well-funded, coordinated, and political denial—a purposeful obfuscation that benefits specific vested interests. Robert Proctor and Londa Schiebinger included climate skepticism in their volume Agnatology, the study of ignorance, or what we might call the social construction of ignorance. In their contribution to this volume, historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway outline the powerful forces behind climate denial and how its funding, coordination, and dissemination was a purposeful attempt to delegitimize climate science following the same playbook as Big Tobacco’s defense of smoking cigarettes. Veldman links those forces—extractive industries and certain media corporations—to the elite leadership of white traditionalist evangelicalism, an alliance with the secular world. Ignorance serves a purpose. It helps mask those forces behind environmental degradation in areas which are specifically targeted by polluting industries because of their lax industrial and environmental regulation, such as the typically Republican-voting rural South.
The sense of dissonance that comes from encountering those who are ostensibly socially similar yet radically different in worldview to her permeates Veldman’s prose as she tries to explain the problem of traditional evangelicals’ climate skepticism. Susan Harding called fundamentalist Christians in America the “repugnant cultural other,” and their rejection of climate science also seems to provoke an off-putting otherness. It is bothersome to academics and researchers; we attempt to analyze and understand and explain it, calling it denial, skepticism, and now, embattlement. There is something transgressive about the continuing evangelical refusal of climate science, a head-in-the-sand-as-the-meteor-approaches blindness about it. However, evangelicals see climate science and environmentalism as transgressing the natural order—putting government where God is, putting the Earth where God is. Nature has its place and climate change disrupts this sense of order. Thus, they reject it.
Traditionalist evangelical Christianity confers a strong sense of order to human existence, both temporal and moral. Humanity has a timeline, with a predictable end, and a knowable beginning, with fates allotted according to fidelity to moral norms. The answers are known through scripture, not science. With echoes of controversies surrounding evolution and creationism, proper knowledge is theologically constituted in this order. Much of climate science is therefore improper knowledge. This virulent anti-intellectualism in contemporary American public life blends faith and opinion. Personal belief prevails over evidence-based knowledge. Veldman historicizes American anti-intellectualism and attributes it to democracy generally, yet the United States is unique among many contemporary democracies for so fractiously and dangerously denying the evidence presented by their own climate scientists and public health officials. What is at stake is not simply an academic debate over different worldviews. Disbelief in the imminent, existential threat of climate change offers about the same kind of protection as my evangelical Christian neighbor in Arizona provided when he refused to wear a mask to the store because he knew that only God could protect him.
Yet, how important is belief in the face of existential calamity? Through my fieldwork in 2018 on climate denial in Arizona, Missouri, and Louisiana, I began to question whether it mattered ultimately if some people denied the conclusions of climate science on anthropogenic climate change and its consequences for a livable planet. The inevitability of several degrees in average temperature increase due to systemic inertia and tipping points of specific large fragile ecosystems such as the Arctic and Amazon means that mitigation needs to happen at an unprecedented rate. Our denial—each one of us, including me, and most likely you—who consume, extract, and emit fossil fuels daily, is a much more significant problem. The recent reduction of consumption and transportation due to lockdown regulations resulted in only 8 percent decrease in global carbon emissions. What is necessary is so vast, so extensive, so revolutionary, that it dwarfs the beliefs of any one group.
Still, the parallel between climate skepticism and the rejection of public health recommendations to help limit the spread of Covid-19 remains instructive. At the root of both phenomena lies what Veldman diagnoses as the sense of embattlement with the secular world, which pits traditionalist evangelicals against other segments of American society. She describes a symptom of a much deeper malaise: a society in which different segments feel locked in combat with each other. A society in which many reject scientific evidence due to the source, rather than the veracity, of that evidence and that views the other as transgressing the natural order of things, cannot effectively respond to the tribulations it will face. A house divided cannot stand.